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September 4, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Historians win one, lose one on May 26, 1972

This Throwback Thursday is a moving experience from May 26, 1972. That was the day preservationists won one fight and lost another against The Man’s efforts to pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

They saved the Emma Kunz house, which they thought had been built in 1830. They also thought it had been home to a Belleville alderman known for summoning the doctor to the bedside of one of Illinois’ founding political figures. And they thought the daughter of a Lincoln confidant had lived there.

Wrong on all three counts.

Historians now know the house was built in 1851. While a great example of a German working-class family home, it never housed Illinois’ political royalty or their kin.

In 1972 the Kunz house sat at the corner of East Washington and South Jackson streets, across from the Belleville Public Library. It was slated for demolition so Citizens Savings could build a parking lot.

The St. Clair County Historical Society convinced the savings and loan to give them the house. They hired Cruikshank House Moving and on May 26, 1972, they carted the house across east Belleville to 602 Fulton St.

Photos of the move show the dome of the 111-year-old St. Clair County Courthouse, which on that day was also pitting history against progress.

St. Clair County leaders wanted to raze the courthouse and build a new county building, so Belleville tried to block demolition by passing preservation ordinances. On the day of the Kunz house move, county leaders won their court case against Belleville and offered the old courthouse to anyone who could move it.

Preservationists began to raise the $300,000 needed, yet a week later they gave up and the courthouse was razed.

The Kunz house is still standing and since 1978 has served as a museum. More research showed the house was actually built for a German immigrant, plasterer Jacob Krill, and his wife, Nancy. A Belleville fire chief, Henry Kunz, bought it in 1895. It is named for his daughter, Emma, because she lived there for 77 years, longer than any other occupant.

Emma Kunz died in 1986 at age 92.

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